Touching on Peter’s early years; his parents and family, companions, education and circumstances; the curious tale of Alain DuClos (Sixfingers) and his odd demise; his mother’s story; how he avenged himself on brother Henri and escaped the slavers.
Perhaps none, or few, of my misfortunes about to unfold in this tale would have happened had I not betrayed my brother Henri to the slavers. Yes, you heard me aright, dear reader; I delivered my brother into their hands for the lucre of a few coins, thereby setting in motion a series of events and their consequences beyond any cap-ability on my part to foresee them. But I will repeat to the end that if the blame was mine, the fault was his, or so I felt at the time without any sensible sting of remorse. You may judge the affair differently but I hope fairly. At least have the patience to hear how the matter was circumstanced against me before you issue a condemnation.
The only likeness ever I saw of my father Joseph Prosper, or Prospère, as it was written in our French tongue, was a framed artist’s sketch my mother kept hidden in a drawer by her bed. With cosmetics or crayons she had completed as faithfully as she could the approximation of his features. Whether in truth he was or not my father, God alone knows of a certainty, but with this public claim my mother inscribed and baptized me in St. Martinville parish as Pierre Prospère, adding as a second name Tourmoulin in memory of a relative, her father, if her account can be believed.
Picture then, if you will, a gaunt, long-necked Frenchman sunk into weeds too large for his lean frame; fierce blue eyes; untrimmed, blond hair—and by the look of it all but virgin to comb and brush—descending to his shoulders; a high forehead; bristly yellowish eyebrows; large, wafery ears set at a low, wide angle to his head; ruddy, freckled skin too fair for browning in the New Orleans climate; an uncommonly large nose hooked over a thin-lipped mouth etched by exuberant red mustachios; and a wispy, reddish pointed goatee that completed a long, narrow face. With these features you will have his true image.
I was long incuriously ignorant about his origins and whereabouts, for before I reached the age of memory and sensibility, he fled New Orleans for the Spanish territory of Coahuila-Texas, clutching a bag of purloined funds, lashing a lathered stallion, and—so it was rumored— taunting pursuing constables.
No description could be more unlike my youthful recollect-tions of Mother’s appearance. She was soft of feature and form, saffron in complexion, and the apex of her fair glory was her waist-long hair that undulated in lustrous and luscious ebony over her smooth arms and shoulders. Her dark eyes sparkled as her high merriment and extravagant charms earned her entry into the passions and purses of old New Orleans. Her voice was melodious with the accents and words of the languages we all spoke and commingled with casual fluency: French, Spanish, and Old Quarter English.
Though beyond the meridian of her life at the time of this telling, yet she retained charms sufficient in their effect to rouse the patrons to whistling, thunderous applause when she played the harp and sang French and Spanish songs. At times in a more ebullient spirit she danced Spanish boleros and fandangos and French contra dances and waltzes with selected partners in Père LaChaise’s venerable cabaret or, later, in Madame Sonnier’s more raucous Sojourner Inn and Tavern. She had a passion for the minuet learned in her years in St. Martinville but for want of accomplished partners and stately locale seldom danced it in New Orleans.
On fair afternoons as she customarily issued forth into the streets of the Vieux Carré men halted to view her passing, hats doffed and hearts secretly or openly offered to her feminine splendor. As she glided by staring male onlookers, serene in her seductive beauty, skirts and petticoats a-rustle in short, form-hugging and puffless cirsaca and matching casaquin, many an angry lady berated husband or companion for his helpless bewitchment. Outwardly indifferent to their silent or spoken provocations, which she accepted as the natural homage men pay great beauty, yet she seemed to enter into a tacit complicity with each gentleman by leaving him with the singular impress-ion of having been favored by a fleeting smile, a subtle hand signal, or an inviting tilt of her head. As a poet of the English tongue has sung:
Grace was in all her steps, heav’n in her eye,
In every gesture dignity and love.
Notwithstanding this intense masculine admiration, it brought no honest courtship, much less solid offers of matrimony. Her remote admixture of African blood, though diluted by Spanish, Irish, and French ancestry, was too ecumenical for old Creole families, and as American influence grew in Louisiana, the same traits that bewitched the men of New Orleans also forbade her intercourse with prudish Anglo-Saxon society. Moreover, she had three children of uncertain paternity, Henri, Monique, and me, offspring of illicit loves and liaisons that were the grist of gossip and scandal in the Old Quarter.
As we return to the year when this writing commences—the Year of our Lord 1831—in the fifteen or so years since her arrival from St. Martinville she had reigned in near legendary supremacy over rival entertainers who exchanged their soft charms and amorous interludes for the hard coin of eager patrons. Unlike others of her condition and profession who flashed meteor-like in lurid, ephemeral glory only to fade as quickly into diseased or alcoholic obscurity, with superior cunning and beauty my mother evaded this tragic dénouement by becoming the mistress of a series of affluent and powerful men. In this way she avoided perilous traffic with drunken sailors, lawless rivermen, riotous frontiersmen, and vicious riff-raff that drifted in and out of New Orleans.
You may think it disrespectful and unnatural of me to speak of my mother as I do. But since she showed us no natural affection and talked as freely of her lovers and liaisons as one might speak of a hangnail or a bout of catarrh, I grew up assuming she had as much right to her personal immorality as a less audacious woman would have to her prudish virtue.
She took only the scantiest interest in our material welfare and upbringing. Indeed, she once concocted the fable—acknowledged by all but believed by none—that Henri was the son of wayward sister Cécile who, supposedly, abandoned him to elope with a French sailor from Marseilles. In any case, she forbade us to show ourselves in Sojourner’s Tavern and punished us severely if we disturbed her during the hours when she customarily entertained her present gentleman. We were barely past toddler age when she shoved us out to fend for ourselves in the streets of the Old Quarter, there to beg, steal, lie, and deceive with the consuming passion and singular cunning that hunger breeds in the human race. My siblings and I learned early and felt often the hard truth of a common Old Quarter saying:
La faim rend tout pain délicieux
(Hunger makes any bread delicious)
Possessed of a certain natural shrewdness, I excelled in larceny and soon became the leader of a motley band of young ruffians who preyed on visitors and shopkeepers in the Quarter, quickly becoming delinquent masters at lifting purses and coin, merchandise, wine, food, and whatever else of profit and gratification we could lay hands on. As the years passed, the few survivors of our band—Jules Petrie, Joseph (“Pouches” [pockets]) Ducoeur, Ignace Bossier, Julie Cheveuil, and I—rose to the higher ranks of thievery, mastering the intricate nuances of pickpocketing and slight-of-hand tricks with cards and dice and acquiring consummate skills in many a time-tested ruse for separating fools from their money and beauties from their virtue, as we, beginning with sweet Julie’s willing help, were precociously parted from ours. We overproved the truth of the adage:
So long as the world lasts, there will always be a plenteous supply of knavery to meet the ample demand of folly.
Gentle reader, if you are sharp of hearing and chanced to be walking along the river side of the Vieux Carré on a certain Tuesday afternoon in May of 1830, you may have overheard Jules, Julie, and me planning our latest swindle.
“I have caught his eye and he follows me now like a puppy. We have talked and he is ripe for the taking,” sloe-eyed Julie whispered to Jules and me as we strolled by without looking at her. “And his purse looks to be as thick as his belly,” she added gleefully.
“Then see to it that he follows you to the room behind the alley before some strumpet plucks him,” Jules instructed her without glancing in her direction. “And be ready for me. I will do the rest. Pierre will stand lookout.”
As I guarded the alleyway, the corpulent victim wasted no time stripping to his underdrawers and making ready to mount his delectable prize. At that very moment Jules burst in, waving a gleaming knife and screaming his outrage.
“You scoundrel! You swine! What are you doing with my wife? Have you no decency? When I finish carving you into a capon, you’ll service no other woman! And you, woman, so you thought to cuckold me with this fat pig! Have you no shame?”
“Mercy, God’s mercy, dear husband! This man spoke to me in the Plaza then followed me. I rebuffed him, of course, but he took me by surprise as I made for the market. He dragged me into this alley, and tried to have his way with me! I swear by all that is holy that I speak the truth!”
“I heard no screams of protest, but we shall learn the truth of the matter, and you will answer to me later. But you, son of a diseased harlot, you will pay now for this outrage!”
“Gentle, good sir, spare me! I had no idea the woman was married. She mentioned no husband, but led me to think she was willing to ... But let me make amends, I beg you.”
“In what way can you repair this outrage to my honor?”
“Sir, I have money,” the man said, sweating profusely and dancing on one leg as he donned his trousers. “I will pay you all I have if you will let me go, as I beg you.”
“Money cannot restitch a man’s torn honor,” Jules responded in a milder tone but still waving his knife.
“I would offer more if I could, but what I have I offer with apologetic sincerity.”
“I will take your money, since I do not wish to add my own crime to the wrongs done here today. But my grief against you remains. I counsel you not to cross my path again, lest upon seeing your face again I regret my action and decide to take vengeance.”
The man hurriedly buttoned his trousers, emptied his ample purse on the bed, and fairly ran out the door and down the alleyway. As for us, we celebrated one of our finest swindles with wine and song. The money was considerable, but as soon come as soon gone.
Such was our life on the street in those far off days.
As I revere the memory of Father Branigan—of whom I shall speak later—for the understanding I have of letters, Creed, and faith, so now I render a perverse homage to Alain DuClos for polishing my larcenous skills. He always wore gloves, and when asked why, told us it was none of our affair. One day by accident when his glove caught fire in his bakery, we learned the truth. To his five exceptionally long, dextrous fingers and, we assumed, his toes, nature had added a shorter sixth digit. Despite his threats and protests, this abnormality quickly earned him the unskakable nickname of Sixdoigts (Sixfingers) and became the object of fixated wonderment to all who had business with him.
With only rare exceptions, these dealings proved to be as ruinous to his fascinated customers as they were profitable for his purse. His portal to the world and the legitimate shelter for his many unlawful enterprises was his épicerie en tous genres, or general store, located near the crossing of Bienville and Dauphné streets. In Spanish times its smaller, primitive forerunner was known simply as the Bodega of Spaniard Jacinto Vigo. When Spanish rule in New Orleans ended in 1803 don Jacinto decided to return to his ancestral Galician terruño, as he nostalgically called it. Rumor had it that the astute Sixfingers duped the homesick gallego into sailing for Spain with only an officially notarized but worthless promissory note and the grandiose expectation of receiving double his invested money within the year. As far as I know, he is still waiting.
Once in possession of the store, Sixfingers launched a series of enterprises well beyond the outermost legal bounds. From my band of young thieves he redeemed stolen items worth many times over the paltry sums he paid us. To our complaints he responded with huge, sweeping gestures with his extraordinary hands, rolling his eyes in mock exasperation and pointing out the risks he took and the bribes he was obliged to pay to deflect constabulary investigations. Although we grumbled and tried to think of ways profitably to dispose of our stolen items elsewhere, in the end we always came back meekly to Sixfingers, hanging our heads as he scolded us for our disloyalty and lack of trust. For like most thieves, we were as inept in the merchandising of stolen goods as we were skilled in their removal from rightful owners.
Notwithstanding our whimperings respecting our meager returns, we dared not consider betrayal of any sort, for we were singularly mindful of the suspected demise of one Jacques Grandpré for a breach of the thieves’ code. Outraged over his paltry receipts and Sixfingers’ comparatively handsome returns, Grandpré formed a scheme to deliver the object of his spite to the authorities. But learning of this intention through his suborned agents within the constabulary, Sixfingers moved first. Lured into the épicerie on a promise of making amends and rectifying underpaid accounts, Grandpré did not emerge and indeed was never seen again in New Orleans. Sixfingers was suspected of a homicidal crime and became the object of an official investigation. But inasmuch as no cadaver was found, no charge could be made. The case remained unsolved, even though gossip and conjecture abounded. For a brief time neighbors avoided Sixfingers and his épicerie, but in no great lapse of days his abundant supply of uncommonly spicy and conveniently cheap sausages and tallow candles brought back his old customers and earned him new ones as well. His customers commented on the peculiar tang of the sausages, to which Sixfingers responded that the savor was traceable to a rare African spice unknown in the Western nations. I suspected without saying so that it had to do with the unfortunate Grandpré. You, dear reader, will understand why I consumed none of the spicy sausages.
Even as I treated Sixfingers with fearful circumspection, I recall with admiring gratitude his help in avenging myself on one Patrice LaChaise, son of the venerable Père LaChaise who so nobly came to the aid of my mother and her family. In personal qualities Patrice so differed from his noble father that it strained my belief to accept his filial kinship. For Patrice was as miserly as his sire was generous, as vicious in instincts as Père LaChaise had been noble in impulse. I speak of Père LaChaise in this way for he had passed to a better life some years since and Patrice inherited his enterprise.
Now in response to certain petty thefts, belligerent Patrice declared war on my band, and so severely did he press us in a coordinated campaign with the authorities that for a time he all but rendered us ineffectual in our larcenous commerce. The sudden dearth of merchandise alarmed Sixfingers who complained that he was unable to satisfy the requests of his best customers. I explained the cause to him, but instead of responding with his customary exaggerated gestures and melodramatic oratory, his lean face took on a thoughtful cast as his six-fingered hand drummed on the sordid counter.
“This requires a plan,” he muttered finally to our quizzical looks, “and I have the makings of one. Monsieur LaChaise, my lads, will find that we are not so easily bested. Get along with you now, but you, Pierre, return tomorrow. I shall have a task for you then.”
The next day I did as he bade me, and no sooner entered I apprehensively than he called me behind the dirty curtain separating the store from his squalid living quarters and handed me a bag with twelve gleaming Spanish dollars.
“Now, mon petit ami, these are your instructions. You are to take one of these new dollars to LaChaise’s Inn where you will ask for wine and food. There you will apologize to monsieur Lachaise in your best manner and vow by all that is sacred that you have renounced your former life of thievery. Say no more, but the next day you will repeat the purchase with another new dollar; and the next, and if necessary, the next. And mind you, spend none of the change. Understand you fully my instructions?”
“Yes, of course, but what is the scheme?”
“You will know in due time.”
Though thoroughly mystified by my instructions, obediently I followed them. No sooner had I entered the inn than Patrice came towards me so menacingly—for he was large of frame and stature—that I fell to my knees in genuine terror and sobbed out my abject apologies and the grievous error of my ways. He looked down on my groveling posture, arms on his sides, and his face took on a look of smug selfsatisfaction.
“You have stolen your last from Patrice LaChaise, and only if your apology is sincere may you yet avoid imprisonment for your thefts.”
“Oh, sir, but it is, it is!” I pleaded. “Never again will I take anything not earned by honest labor.”
“Then what is your business here?” he asked suspiciously.
“Oh, sir, I came only to purchase wine and food. As a consequence of my new resolution, I have found employment that pays me well. See, here is my money to pay for my purchase.”